Seeing Through Existential Anxiety

Have you ever noticed that even when things are going well, somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you may feel antsy or a little bit anxious? And other times, it may be much more pronounced. There’s a good chance that what you’re experiencing is existential anxiety—the angst that comes from being human, regardless of what’s going on. It’s always with us, but during times of strife, like a pandemic, it increases because the pandemic heightens our awareness of our mortality and the fragility of life. Also, the pandemic exaggerates another reality, which is that the future is uncertain. Both of these—mortality and uncertainty—are aspects of life for which most people don’t have a good solution. As far as I can tell, there are two ways to deal with existential anxiety.

Before exploring how to deal with existential anxiety, I want to share my thoughts about why this is worth doing—for ourselves individually, our relationships, and society at large. If we don’t find ways to reduce existential anxiety, we inhibit our health, limit intimacy, and create a more polarized society.

Inhibit our physical and mental health. Existential anxiety leads us to seek ways to distract and soothe ourselves, some of which are not healthy—such as eating comfort foods, drinking alcohol, using drugs, and social media. All of these unconscious strategies can inhibit long-term health and well-being.

Limit intimacy. Existential anxiety arises, in part, because we fear death—ours and the people we love. And to reduce the pain of losing those we love, one of our unconscious strategies is to limit how much we allow ourselves to open our hearts and connect as deeply as possible.

Create a more polarized society (which we clearly see happening now). When human beings feel anxious and uncertain, we tend to turn toward other people, looking for a shared way to make sense of what’s going on. We look for like-minded people. This is why during times of uncertainty, we see conspiracy theories abound. And people who hold a different view represent a threat to what we are trying to hold onto, so we reject them and create polarization.

Two solutions

Now, let’s explore two ways to manage or reduce our existential anxiety— doing so will enhance our health, open the door to greater intimacy, and help us see through the illusion that making other people the enemy will solve our anxiety.

To reduce our anxiety about death and uncertainty (largely unconscious), we seek to feel we are part of something that will extend beyond our death—to create a lasting footprint. So we create things toward that end: children, businesses, products, art, community, religion, and stories that bestow a sense of continuity. My children will carry on . . . people will read the book I wrote after I die . . . family or communal stories that include me will be told for generations to come. 

For example, in the corner of my office, I have an antique globe sitting in a wooden stand. When I was thirteen-years-old, it was given to me by a friend of my grandfather, who was probably seventy-five at the time. I interviewed this man for a school project, and he saw something in me that made him believe I would cherish and care for the globe in his office, which I had admired. To this day, I look at that globe every night before I go to bed. I comfort myself as I remember the older man who gave it to me, long since gone, and I contemplate the idea that someday I will find a young person to whom I will pass along this globe. That young person will appreciate the globe and share a story with a future generation about the man who gave it to him or her.

Another example of creating a lasting footprint— I once worked with a successful businessman who started his first business in his twenties. When he was in his eighties, he was starting his fifth business. His life was so full and productive that it was as if he didn’t have time to contemplate dying, and he overcame any concerns about the uncertain nature of life by continually creating things he could control. Did he experience existential anxiety? I don’t know. His strategy appeared to be rather successful.

But I think that he was more the exception than the rule. As I get older and observe people around me aging, what I see is an increase in existential anxiety without many good ways to deal with it. So, I’ll offer an alternative approach that is based on changing your level of consciousness.

Shifting levels of consciousness

Existential anxiety arises when we are in a state of safety consciousness, where we live most of the time—trying to protect and control and continually evaluate our performance. And the strategy I just described—attempting to create a lasting footprint—also comes from safety consciousness.

Another approach is to change our level of consciousness. For example, when we access spacious consciousness—a state of mind in which time, words, measurements, and comparisons don’t exist—existential anxiety isn’t relevant. There are various ways to access spacious consciousness, but the most direct path I know of is the A.W.E. method we developed, which was proven highly effective in the clinical study we conducted at UC Berkeley. This method quickly leads to an emotional experience of awe.

This works because when you access awe that is connected to whatever it is that you fear losing, i.e., a person you love, you connect with something greater than your anxiety. In part, this approach is a matter of switching your focus from one side of a coin (for example, fear of losing someone you love) to the other side of the same coin (the depth of your love). It seems counterintuitive because you might think that if you feel your love more strongly, you will also feel more anxiety about losing the source of that love. But that’s not what happens if you go fully into awe.

As we access awe, our concerns about time and loss are replaced with present moment sensations that disrupt our anxious thoughts. The loss we fear is enveloped by our love and appreciation for that which we fear losing.

For example—think of a person you fear losing. Take a minute to get in touch with how much they mean to you. Give your full and undivided attention (the “A” in A.W.E.) to how precious this person is to you. Be with those feelings and thoughts. Let them fill you. Then wait (the “W” in A.W.E.) for the length of time it takes for one inhalation, staying with the feelings and thoughts. When you exhale (the “E” in A.W.E.), allow your exhalation to be a little longer than normal, and you will notice your positive feelings expand. Try this and otice how you feel.

When you find your way to the other side of your anxiety, you connect with your love and appreciation for being alive. The key is to move through the anxiety—not deny it—and when you do this, your relationship to your anxiety will shift.

C.S. Lewis captured this experience when he said, “The pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.” If we are to love—life, a pet, a person, an accomplishment—we will experience loss. Worrying about that loss—consciously or unconsciously creates anxiety. The anxiety inhibits our health and our relationships. Using this A.W.E. practice to experience awe turns down the volume of existential anxiety by helping us inhabit our love of life.

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